Imagining what is possible with Buddhist contemplation

Updated On — 28th May, 2021

Welcome to the first week of our new YMD program: the Year of Meditating Dangerously (a year long series on a specific type of Buddhist contemplation).  Each of these weekly posts will have a suggested Buddhist contemplation that’s recommended be done for just a few minutes when you wake up and just before you go to sleep.

The Way Buddhist Contemplation Works

The way this form of Buddhist contemplation works is to see the forest of our life rather than the trees of individual thoughts and emotions, which is often where we spend most of our time with “regular” meditation practice.

We need to get enough distance, kind of like an escape velocity, from the gravitational pull of our “self-cherishing” mind in order to see the kind of problems we create for ourselves and the confusion and turmoil these can cause. We also need to develop the affect tolerance to be able to be open to the suggestion that the majority of these problems are needlessly self-created.

I mentioned the term “self-cherishing mind” just now – and this will be a major focus of these Buddhist contemplations. The Mahayana Buddhist approach of these contemplations is to offer a rather radical resolution to our propensity to create problems in our life – and it is quite radical. It strikes at the very heart of the matter.

And it can be a little disconcerting at the start.

So let’s just get it out of the way – we don’t contemplate the branches the stuff that bothers us (after all, we are in this thing to get past our suffering and experience truly life affirming happiness and peace, right?) – we uproot the plant itself. We strike a blow directly aimed at self-obsessions which this approach holds are at the root of all our misery. And we call this self-obsessional tendency the “self-cherishing mind” in this course in Buddhist contemplation.

But while the aim is direct, the approaches inward are slow, yet methodical. No stone is left unturned.

So let’s start…

In this first week let’s look at the first stanza of one of the essential texts of this tradition, the Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva, written in the thirteenth century by the monk Togmay Sango (1295 to 1369). The first stanza sums up in a way the entire teaching.

Namo Lokeshvaraya.
You see that all phenomena neither come nor go.
Still you strive solely for the benefit of beings.

We will have a lot to say over the coming year of the mythic figure Avalokiteshvara, which offers folks who are more inclined to working with archetypal meaning and imagery a fantastic way to complement the contemplations. (Namo Lokeshvaraya — simply means homage to the all seeing one, referring to Avalokiteshvara–who is said to see the suffering of the world).

Avalokiteshvara sees that the nature of experience cannot be defined, that here is “no coming or going,” in short, that it’s all empty of solidity and “lasting-ness.”

When we see in our heart that things don’t exist in the heavy way we have assumed them to exist, it also means that we don’t exist in the way we usually think we do. That there is no identity to anything or anybody ultimately.

And if you have no solid identity then you are free to act in any situation as the situation requires. This is a critical idea here…deeply “grokking” our essential identity-less-ness allows us to act freely, and uncannily appropriately, in life, free form our self-obsessional tendencies which tend to muck things up.

Then the first stanza says the seeing this he works to free limitless beings from their suffering.

This then is the other side of the coin of identity-less-ness … what you see when you have the freedom to act freely, truly freely, is to see that there is only one thing to do … which is to respond to the suffering that arises in every moment of experience (and when your mind becomes sensitized through meditation, you see this very clearly, that indeed, suffering, or intra-psychic friction is happening nearly in every second).

When you see this you stop fighting experience.

Everything slowly changes.

It opens the door to non-referential compassion.

But let’s work on this one contemplation at a time…which is why we will be on this journey for a year.


This week’s Buddhist contemplation

1. What feelings are evoked by imagining the stanza?

2. Are there any feelings when you reflect on the archetype of Avalokiteshvara – a mythic being whose personality has been so transformed that his only thought is the welfare of all distressed sentient beings?

3. Try and contemplate the essence of this stanza, what if anything does it mean to you?

4. Don’t try to think hard about the concepts here, but rather see what you feel when you ponder the notion of yourself being like Avalokiteshvara – does this invoke fear? What does this feel like?

These are are just some suggestions, as this week we have no specific contemplation to do, as many of the texts have actual “slogans” that we work with. This is just a way to get our feet wet.

I would love to know what you feelings are at this point as we start our journey of Buddhist contemplation.


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About Tom Davidson-Marx

Former Buddhist monk, now father of two and full time registered nurse, my passion is sharing what I have learned from a life-long love, study and practice of the early Buddhist teachings. Thanks for reading.

7 thoughts on “Imagining what is possible with Buddhist contemplation”

  1. I feel so helpless when I meet people who get so much from contemplation and I’m left wondering what I’m doing wrong. Contemplation is a homework which I haven’t finished yet, but then maybe I fall short right there just by comparing it with a homework. Maybe it’s the state of mind I’ve been living with for the past 10 year or maybe it’s my struggle to stay financially stable in recent years, but I’ve not been able to understand contemplation all that well. On one hand I think I need to rid of all the unnecessary thoughts in my head in order to work on my contemplation and on the other I feel as though I need to take care of my problems first before I can contemplate. It’s just a complicated time in my life.

  2. To be honest I’m still far from being able to see the forest rather than the trees of individual thoughts. I meditate often and I do my best to free my mind of petty thoughts, but I’m embarrassed to admit that my mind is still with full of random imagination. I guess I’m one of those people who have the propensity to create problems in life and my fear of death is a good example of that. I don’t know, maybe all this just means that I need to meditate even more.

  3. Hi Tom! This is the first time I’ve really tried this type of meditation before & at this point I won’t profess to understand it all to a depth I’d like yet, but I do find it very interesting and will definitely keep following this series of yours! Thank you for sharing!

  4. I was waiting for someone to notice that…so yes Noah, as we are more familiar with the Theravada concept of impermanence, when we meet the Mahayana teachings they take the older teachings up another step, precisely as you said — ’emphasizing the dynamic fuidity’ .. and more. Here the perpective emphasizes that there are no opposites– no high, no low, good or bad, birth or death, no coming or going. In the perception of emptiness you perceive that there is already no birth or dearth, no coming or going … so how can you stop something that dioesn’t even exist?. In the Heart Sutra it speaks about “no suffreing, no origination, no stopping, and no path.” I think it counters the original formulation in the Four Noble Truths where it says there is suffering .. and there is a path to the end of suffering. It’s just from a different point of view. And it is a radical pont of view, these teachings on emotiness. The whole purpose of this year long journey of ours is to see how emptiness and comoassion “naturally fuse” as shown in this opening styanza. The next few weeks we will be exploring this point of view more closely. Stay tuned, and thanks for pointing this out!

  5. “phenomena neither come nor go” this is almost a paradoxical take on impermanence to me. Many teachings advise to observe the “arising and passing” of all things as proof of impermanence, though this particular line seems to go a step further in underscoring that phenomena aren’t really even there in the first place. Maybe it’s emphasizing the dynamic fluidity of everything and how it’s challenging to recognize. The rest of the stanza conjures the notion of intense selflessness.

  6. Hi Rob. This is more than I could hope to hear! Just reflecting like that is a way in … and it’s just the beginning, so there is so much more to talk about. So this is good, reflect on timeless-ness and compassion, and how you can bring those qualities to life. More than enough to reflect and contemplate for the week. And try to sit for simple breath awareness meditation a few times a week is always good! Keep us posted on how it’s going. Looking forward to seeing you again in the spring.

  7. The stanza evokes timelessness and compassion…but I’m basically confused but looking forward to learning and experiencing more of these teachings….Happy New Year to you and your family Tom!…See you in the Spring.


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